New rule: I’m no longer using the words “self-help.”
[feels very proud of herself for a full ten seconds]
Okay, fine. That’s not entirely reasonable.
Here’s why: I co-host a comedy podcast called Go Help Yourself. We review self-help books weekly, so I guess that’s not going to work for me.
But to be honest, I am so over the term. I also hate the genre of self-help. I don’t like it. I’m too Midwestern so I don’t like anyone telling me what to do. Yet I love co-producing this podcast with my friend Misty.
I’ve read over 20 self-help books in the last year, and heard 20+ more presented to me during the recording of my podcast. And I’ve boiled it down to one thing: self-help doesn’t really exist.
Yes, you can read a book on your own, but who wrote the book? Who published the book? Edited it? Printed it? Packed it, shipped it, delivered it, sold it, the list goes on – my point is that self-help doesn’t exist in a vacuum, because our society doesn’t either.
While my strategy brain would love to pick apart how no one does it alone, and therefore it couldn’t technically be self-help… there is a bigger issue at play: the concept of self-help often puts the responsibility for societal, systemic problems in the hands of the individual. How can someone read a book and solve the wage gap for themselves? Should they have to?
If there are systemic problems at play, one book read by one individual is not going to solve the problem – moreover, reading the book and then failing to solve the problem (either individually or systemically) might lead the individual to feel responsible and accept some blame for failure, even when it is a systemic issue.
Should community members who aren’t getting their needs met – from healthcare, public transportation, public education and beyond – should they be held responsible for making their life 100% better? Many books would lead you to believe that they are, or that they can control all aspects of their life.
Most of the self-help books I’ve read or covered on my podcast aren’t intersectional. They don’t meet people where they are, and are written from a predominantly white, heterosexual, cisgendered and often male point of view. Would this material work for a black transgender woman? No author can write to every person, nor should they have to. But too few authors acknowledge their privilege and perspective, and intonate it will apply across the board well for all.
So, no more “self-help.”
Instead, I’m going to use the words “personal growth.”
“Personal growth” doesn’t imply that I did it on my own. It doesn’t conjure up the image of me perusing a bookstore only to be told by the author that I need to simply ask for more money at my job and that the bad thoughts I’ve had in my life up to now is what’s keeping me from being paid the same as a man. It doesn’t seem like I have to fix it all alone.
Personal growth sounds like with intention, it could be just about anything: taking a class, journaling, reading a book, going to a lecture, meditating, exercising, going to therapy, going on a retreat, trying to be a vegetarian for a week, reading a newspaper, going to an art museum, writing a letter to an old friend, forgiving someone, cooking for myself, talking to someone who thinks differently, visiting family, taking a new job, quitting a job, starting or ending a relationship, trying a new kind of food, learning a new skill – stop me before I list all of my goals in 2020.
Personal growth sounds like something that takes place all over the world, whereas “self-help” is decidedly an American invention.
I had a period in my life when I had significant personal growth – and it wasn’t always pleasant. I often hated it, but I kept working at it. I was in a therapeutic group for a number of years with some incredible women through my individual therapist, and the time spent in that group was the most challenging, productive, growth-producing, difficult and rewarding work I’ve ever done. And I love the person I’ve become – in large part because of those women and the work I was willing to do. There is no way I could have ever grown that much in that timeframe by reading a book and trying to do it on my own.
So, no more “self-help.” It’s “personal growth” from here on out.
I think this is much more amenable to people: if you read a book and you don’t solve the wage gap, it’s cool – you were just on a personal growth journey. If you read a book and it doesn’t speak to you at all, it still falls under the umbrella of personal growth: you learned what author you don’t want to read next (or ever again).
Join me, won’t you? Let’s end this ridiculous idea of individuals being responsible for problems that are rooted in society or culture, and this very American ideal of individuals being able to fix it all on their own. Maybe, if we stop idealizing our own abilities to solve societal problems, we’ll actually start working together to fix them.
Follow Lisa at – @itslinke
Photo Credit by Birdie Thompson